LYON, France — One of my friends, a traveling companion on more than one occasion, refers to me as a "guerrilla traveler" because I seem to leave no museum undiscovered, no cathedral un-toured, no monument unseen, no restaurant untried. She says I attack every destination as if I were planning a siege.
She isn't the only one. I've traveled with girlfriends, boyfriends and family, and nearly every one of them came back complaining that they needed a vacation after their "vacation" with me.
They should have been with me on my recent sojourn to the beautiful Rhone Alps region of France. Even though it's double the size of New Jersey and contains some of the country's main attractions — the ski resorts of Chamonix and Grenoble, the vineyards of Beaujolais and the shores of Lac Léman, which we know better as Lake Geneva — I chose to spend my days in a way not even remotely guerillalike: eating, drinking and being pampered.
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Arriving in Lyon — which even Parisians grudgingly admit is the culinary center of France — I looked forward to dining at one of the restaurants of the legendary Paul Bocuse. Alas, my one night here was a Monday, and the great chef's establishments were closed.
I consoled myself instead at Daniel et Denise, a bouchon specializing in traditional Lyonnaise fare, where owner/chef Joseph Viola wears the distinctive red, white and blue collar of a Meilleur Ouvrier de France. That distinction is bestowed annually on France's best craftsmen in 15 disciplines, and one taste of Viola's Bresse chicken with tarragon sauce left no doubt why he was honored in the culinary category.
If I thought it would be all downhill, culinarily speaking, after Daniel et Denise, I was in for a pleasant surprise. The next night found me at the Auberge de Clochemerle in the tiny village of Clochemerle, plopped among lush green vineyards.
The village consists of just a few streets, but at the Auberge, chef Romain Barthe has just been awarded his first Michelin star. Keeping it all in the family, his wife, Delphine, is the sommelier, finding just the right wine to pair with her husband's inspired dishes. Afterward, if you're in no frame of mind to leave, the Auberge has seven rooms for overnight guests.
In a country where chefs are bigger celebrities than movie and sports stars, Georges Blanc, possessor of three Michelin stars, is one of the biggest. The public rooms at the Georges Blanc Parc and Spa in Vonnas are filled with framed photographs of notable diners, including Bill and Hilary Clinton, Gene Hackman and Catherine Deneuve, all lauding the kitchen wizardry of the charming Monsieur Blanc.
Dinner in the hotel restaurant is a gastronomic feast, which you should follow with a glass of chartreuse, a liqueur first concocted in the Rhone Alps region by Carthusian monks more than three centuries ago.
Any discussion of food in France automatically leads to a discussion about its perfect companion, wine. Within the boundaries of the Rhone Alps lie the vineyards of the Beaujolais region. Although technically a part of neighboring Burgundy, the wines of Beaujolais are classified separately because the region produces only two grapes, chardonnay for white wines and Gamay for red.
When many Americans think of Beaujolais wine, they think of Beaujolais nouveau, a table wine fermented for only a few weeks and then released for mass distribution every November. There is Beaujolais beyond nouveau, and two excellent places to discover this are Château de La Chaize and Château Montmelas.
The former, set among the rolling hills along the border with Burgundy, provides a magnificent setting to taste the wines of the region. The château, built in the 17th century by the brother of Père de La Chaize, confessor of King Louis XIV, is a private home not open to the public, but visitors may wander through the landscaped gardens leading to the château.
Designed from the drawings of André Le Nôtre, gardener to the Court of Versailles, they feature sculpted topiary, statues and an ornamental pool.
Château de Montmelas, in the southern part of the Beaujolais vineyards, has an even older pedigree, with the 90-room stone castle dating to 1566. From the castle parapets is an unobstructed view across the green checkerboard of the vineyards.
Tastings at both châteaux must be scheduled in advance (go to Chateaudelachaize.com or Chateau-montmelas.com; the second Web site is in French only).
If there's anything better than spending one's days feasting on gourmet food and tasting wine, it's spending them being pampered at a world-class spa. The Rhone Alps has 200 from which to choose.
At Château Pizay, which in the Middle Ages was a place of rest for pilgrims from Rome and is now a four-star hotel, visitors wander through the formal gardens to the spa. There they indulge in treatments such as a full-body wrap using grape pulp and grape seeds, or one using the château's Rose & Pepper line of products.
If Georges Blanc Parc and Spa's restaurant lures gourmets, its Mosaic Spa is an oasis for those wanting a relaxing body treatment. Even before I stretched out on the massage table, I felt a sense of peace, courtesy of the setting in a glass-enclosed building overlooking what was once an orange grove and is now a lush park.
Considering that Europe has been in love with spa towns since Roman days, Évian-les-Bains came late to the party. Baden-Baden in Germany and Bath in England had been fashionable for centuries, but Évian-les-Bains remained relatively quiet until the Belle Époque period of the late 19th century.
Visitors flock to the town on the shore of Lake Geneva to taste Evian water, where it originates, and to pay a visit to the luxurious Évian Royal Resort. Resembling a French version of America's Greenbrier, the front of the hotel faces manicured gardens, and the back has an expansive terrace overlooking more gardens stretching to the lake shore, and the beginning of the Alps just beyond.
Schedule a late-afternoon appointment at the resort's Spa Évian Source and then stick around for dinner on the terrace, where an exquisite sunset puts on a show over the lake.
Beyond the pampering
After three days, I was so relaxed I was beginning to worry that I had lost my guerilla traveler instinct. Then I heard about the Royal Monastery of Brou, France's answer to India's Taj Mahal as a monument to a great love.
The story of Margaret of Austria, daughter of Maximilian I, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, reads like a medieval soap opera. Married at age 3, divorced at 11, remarried at 15 and a widow at 18, she married for the third time at 21 to Duke Philibert of the powerful Savoy family.
Their union was blissful until Philibert's death a few years later. A grief-stricken Margaret spent years building the beautiful monastery as a tribute to her beloved husband.
I also knew that I couldn't leave without visiting the town of Yvoire, lauded as one of France's most beautiful. The stone buildings swathed in purple and red bougainvillea, cobblestone streets and elegant châteaux are the stuff of travel posters.
At the Jardin des Cinq Sens (Garden of the Five Senses), I wandered through a labyrinth, designed to allow me to use my senses to revel in nature's bounty.
Afterwards, over a lunch of perch and green salad at the Restaurant du Port, I gazed over Lake Geneva to Switzerland on the opposite shore and decided that I just might have found my new favorite region of France.